Strategies to Prevent Eating Disorders in College

By Alicia Covington & Lauren King 


For young adults, the transition from high school to college can be filled with personal growth, academic opportunities, and fun. However, just like any change in life, it can also be stressful. One of the most concerning ways students manage stress is through eating disordered behaviors. Eating disorders carry one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness (1). Research shows that eating disorders on college campuses are at an all-time high (2).  A study showed that in US undergraduate students the prevalence of an eating disorder risk rose from 15% in 2013 to 28% in 2020/2021 (3). We see these trends here in the Nashville-Franklin-Brentwood area and our colleagues see the same all across the country.


Professionals believe that the increase in eating disorders among college students is fueled by myths about college weight gain, students being in control of their own food for the first time since leaving home, social anxiety, comparison, and other factors. So how do we help protect students headed to college from developing an eating disorder? Below are five ways to set a student up well for a healthy freshman year:

  1. Debunk the Freshman 15 Myth
    Instead of sending your student off to college fearing the “Freshman 15,” educate them that their body may or may not change during this period, and that’s perfectly normal. It’s important to understand that their body might still be developing.
  2. Emphasize Nourishment
    Discuss the importance of thoroughly nourishing the body. Eating disorders often begin with unintentional undernourishment or misguided attempts at “healthy eating.” Talk with your child about how they will obtain their meals, whether it’s in the cafeteria, nearby restaurants, or in their dorm room. Although it may seem obvious, go over in detail what constitutes a balanced meal. Have your child walk you through examples of what they might choose for lunch or dinner in the cafeteria.
  3. Educate on Eating Disorder Risks
    Just as you would discuss the dangers of binge drinking, it’s crucial to talk about the risks of developing eating disorders in college. Explain how some students might develop these disorders and help your child recognize the signs that they may be heading down that path.
  4. Promote Body Acceptance
    Teach body acceptance. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Empathize with your child, that they live in a culture which promotes a thin ideal, and that’s tough.  At the same time, encourage your child to be countercultural by showing gratitude for their body, and accepting that their body is good. Their life will be happier if they can radically accept the body they’ve been given rather than spend their life trying to overcontrol and change it.
  5. Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food and Body Movement
    Start working with your child on developing a healthy relationship with food and movement. Rather than dieting or resorting to rigid ways of eating, teach eating variety and flexibility. Teach that food should be enjoyed and that eating should be a connected experience. Help your child find ways of moving their body that are fun or interesting.

By addressing these topics proactively, you can help your child navigate college life in a healthy way, reducing the risk of developing eating disorders.
If you become concerned that your child is struggling with an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. It’s recommended that those struggling with eating disorders seek the help of a trained medical professional, a registered dietitian, and a licensed therapist or psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. Here at Southeast Psych Nashville, we have therapists with expertise in treating disordered eating and we would love to serve you or your family if you have that need. Please give us a call at 615-373-9955 to get started. We hope we can help you on your journey toward greater health and wellbeing.




1) Arcelus, J., Mitchell, A. J., Wales, J., & Nielsen, S. (2011). “Mortality rates in patients with

anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders: a meta-analysis of 36 studies.” Archives

of General Psychiatry, 68(7), 724-731. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.74

2) Lipson, S. K., & Sonneville, K. R. (2017). “Eating Disorder Symptoms Among Undergraduate and Graduate Students at 12 U.S. Colleges and Universities.” Eating Behaviors, 24, 81-88. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.12.003

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